China urged its citizens to turn to more eco-friendly ways to bury and honor their dead at the weekend as the country showed few signs of going green to mark yesterday’s tomb-sweeping holiday. In the lead-up to the Qing Ming festival, government officials encouraged people to shun centuries-old traditions in favor of cremation and sea burials in a bid to save land and the environment. But state media acknowledged many Chinese have been slow to shake off thousands of years of tradition that dictates offerings are burned at individually marked tombs. “Party officials should lead people in implementing a civilized low-carbon tomb-sweeping and educate and lead their relatives, friends and people around them to boycott vulgar products for the dead,” the state news agency Xinhua said at the weekend. Some shops in China were selling kits including iPhones made of paper to burn at gravesites for yesterday’s festival, a modern twist on the more traditional burnt offering of fake money.
The government’s chief concern has been to encourage Chinese to cremate their dead or bury relatives in unmarked graves covered with newly planted trees as the country runs out of increasingly valuable land to use for burial sites. A state report released last week said that cemetery plots in most areas will be full over the next decade, in turn putting further pressure on farmland while driving up land prices. Each year, about 10 million people die in China which would take up 10 million square-meters of land — more than 20 times the size of the Vatican — were everyone to opt for a traditional burial. In Beijing, rising demand for new grave sites has led to a recent 30-percent annual increase in prices for cemetery space: a three square-meter plot in the capital’s All Buddha Cemetery was selling for up to 1.2 million yuan (US$193,500) this month. In response, the government has set cremation targets but differences in each province have led to cases of body snatching to meet quotas. At the end of last year, prosecutors charged three people in Guangxi with selling more than 20 freshly dug-up corpses to state officials in neighboring Guangdong province for between 1,500 and 3,000 yuan so the bodies could help boost tougher cremation targets. Regulations require cremation rates of 50 percent in mountainous regions going up to 100 percent in cities in Guangdong, a province that includes the largest mega-city in the world around Guangzhou with a total population of more than 42 million people. Countrywide, China cremated 4.46 million people last year, less than 50 percent of the 9.77 million that died in 2014, the government announced on Saturday in the latest sign the rate has barely climbed in recent years despite government efforts. “The culture hasn’t changed much because the way people think has not really changed,” said Wang Yan, whose family owns a funeral services company in central Beijing. In a bid to encourage people to shake off the traditional belief that the dead be buried on land, this year authorities in Beijing doubled subsidies for sea burials from 2,000 yuan to 4,000 yuan. Last year, more than 12,000 people in the capital opted to be buried at sea but many Chinese still disapprove of the practice. “To put it crudely, if your mother wants to be buried at sea you might as well just use the sewer, which leads to the sea anyway,” said one user on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. “You will also save … on government shipping fees.”
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